Synesthesia Interview

I was recently interviewed by James Wannerton, who has participated in this documentary, as well as numerous studies about Synesthesia. I found his website when I was researching more about Synesthesia last year, and contacted him so that I could get more information on our condition.

It took me many months to answer these questions fully, and I hope that you enjoy reading about my experiences! If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask me!

Here are some opening questions for you.  A few of these you will have talked about on your website but they are needed for clarification.

Spatial sequence(number form) [Mild]

Emotions -> colors [Strong]

General sounds -> colors [Strong]

Graphemes -> colors [Strong]

Kinetics -> colors [Weak]

Musical notes -> colors [Strong]

Musical sounds -> colors [Strong]

Pain -> colors [Strong]

Personalities -> colors (“auras”) [Strong]

Phonemes -> colors [Strong]

Grapheme personification* (OLP) [Mild]

Non-graphemic ord. pers.* [Strong]

Object personification* [Strong]

Ticker-tap [Strong]

Kinetics -> sounds [Weak]

Personalities -> smells [Mild]

Sounds -> kinetics [Mild]

Vision -> smells [Mild]

Vision -> sounds [Mild]

I see you have numerous types of synaesthesia. Can you give some examples of what it is you actually experience?

I cannot explain all of them completely since I’ve grown up and their intensities vary as time passes, and also with the situations I’m experiencing (i.e. anxiety, depression, content, excitement, etc.) I’ll try my best to explain the basics.

With music I see “blocks” or “areas” of color in space while the music is playing. I see shapes and textures according to sounds, the sound’s intensity, and wherever they occur in space. The shapes come up when the sound comes up and they overlap. So, if there is a sharp and quick high note (i.e. electro music) then I’ll usually see a sharp figure quickly and intensely where it’s placed in space. If there’s a long drawn out low note (i.e. ballads) then I’ll usually see a darker color, such as purple, that takes up more surface area and lasts longer. I like listening to music without lyrics most of the time because the colors of the words and my ticker tape synesthesia can be too much when listening to an intense song (i.e. metal.) If the song has less going on concerning instruments then lyrics are fine (i.e. Regina Spektor.) This idea goes along with sounds that I hear as well. I love listening to electronic, instrumental, and metal music and prefer listening to foreign languages rather than English.

Ticker tape happens when I’m listening to music with lyrics or when I’m listening to someone speak. I’ll see the word pop up in space with it’s color, texture, and personality, but most of the time their color is the strongest element. This has helped me greatly in retaining French and also calms me down in situations where there are a lot of stimulants. For example, if a professor is explaining a formula in Excel for me really quickly and I don’t understand a part of it then I can see the word in it’s place in space then keep it up there until I have time to ask the professor to clarify it. When learning French I used to remember the details of each word to help retain it. I used to learn around 100 vocabulary words per week for around four months, so remembering the word’s texture or personality or sound along with their color helped me fish it out of my memory when I was writing a paper or taking an exam. Sometimes when I’m talking out loud to someone or writing and I can’t remember a word I’ll say the colors out loud that it’s associated with to help guide me towards the right word. It’s a memory process that comes in handy quite often. Words also calm me down in an obsessive-compulsive fashion. When I’m surrounded by multiple intense stimulants, and I’m without my iPod, I’ll read words on poster boards, etc. multiple times to calm myself down. I’m not sure if that’s synesthesia or something else.

My kinetic connections are more annoying than helpful. They are not as intense as my other forms. When I hear certain sounds I’ll see a movement. So when I hear a random sound from the kitchen then I’ll see a kinetic “bending” movement. It annoys me because of how sudden it happens and also because I can’t derive use from this connection other than a memory jogger sometimes.

Personalities give me smells and colors…but I also get colors from a lot of other stimulants so this is my hardest form to grasp. When I see a person I don’t know if the color I’m seeing is from their personality or from their emotions. One connection that is certain however is my personality to number and words. Each number/word has a personality and that never changes. The number five is angry, frustrated, merciless, rabid, and red. The number nine is lavender, the older sibling, and very calm. Four is green and also my favorite number. The word “Ajatella” (“To think about” in Finnish) is red, drippy, scary, and also merciless.

When I see something I get smells as well…this would be in the annoying category as my smell synesthesia is very strong. A daily occurrence is when I’m sitting at my desk at university or work and I’ll look at my keyboard and get a strong bad stench. I try to ignore this, but there’s always a moment when I realize this connection and it puts me in a bad mood. My vision sounds connection is less intense. It usually happens with far away objects, like a flag flying in the wind or a key chain swinging from someone’s bag. Also, I’ve mentioned this before, but when I take a shower I hear a high-pitched scream and I’m not sure what connection that is.

My pain and color connection doesn’t bother me so much…unless I’m on my period or sick. When I fell on my shins from falling down stairs this past January all I could see was green for around four days. The colors that are usually associated with pain for me are green, orange, red, and sometimes yellow. Currently, my shin contusion from the fall is red with a bit of yellow and black (synesthetically of course.) When I’m sick everything is green, and green is my least favorite color so that’s annoying. I also have an S curve spine/scoliosis that causes me constant discomfort. Whenever my spine starts to lean towards “the pain” all I can see are pain colors and that frustrates me constantly. So I have to do exercises to get rid of these colors that bother me.

When I used to play the piano frequently I saw the blocks of color and shapes above my head as the music went by. I remember my teacher telling me that with enough practice, my fingers would remember the song automatically. For me, I would stare into where the music showed synesthetically and play from there. The video game “Rock Band” would be the closest comparison I can make regarding this situation.

All of these examples are very difficult to fully detail.

How intrusive is all this extra neurological activity?

Now that I’m older and more experienced with my synesthesia I know how to control it. Meaning, that I can try really hard to ignore it when I need to. For example, while in math class I could be easily distracted by the number’s colors and personalities and also have my ticker tape present. That would cause me to not actually retain the lesson however. So with practice I’ve learned to ignore those extra forms happening in space in order to retain the lesson. This technique causes me to be unordinarily focused during lectures to the point where I get really frustrated if someone breaks my concentration as it takes a lot of effort to stay focused.

If I go to a huge conference or concert where there is a lot of activity I can feel overwhelmed to the point where I have to seclude myself outside for a while or cover my ears. These situations cause me great anxiety and I try to avoid them. Also, eating out at a restaurant can be distracting due to the various sudden noises and motions.

A problem that I’m still trying to control is not looking into people’s eyes when they talk to me. My instinct is to look at the shapes, colors, textures, words, etc. that surround them instead. Looking at these “objects” helps me follow the conversation easier than if I were to try to look into their eyes.

When and how did you first realize that your personal perceptions were different to most other people’s?

I wrote about this on my blog, but I can try to clarify even further. I didn’t realize that synesthesia was uncommon until I was 13. While growing up I thought that everyone saw numbers and colors on buildings and objects, etc. I do remember however being told that I was having trouble with numbers during a parent teacher meeting in first grade. I used to tap on the table while doing math to keep track of the numbers and my teachers sternly reminded me to stop each time I did. I also vividly remember drawing a landscape with numbers while my brother was at soccer practice one day after school and I thought that was a bit odd but continued anyways.

I truly realized that my perceptions were different when I watched a documentary on the savant named “Daniel Tammet” one day when I was 13 years old. I told my mother that the building shown in the documentary was covered in 9’s and shortly after my exclamation the film showed the building covered in 9’s. I asked my mom if she saw that too and she told me that I was weird and ignored me.

Did you tell others about your experiences? If so, what was the general reaction?

I generally kept quiet about it while growing up, but not out of insecurity. I was curious to know if any family members had synesthesia as well, so I would ask a select few every few years, but I never asked my friends if they had it. I didn’t think that it was a huge detriment to my life so asking about it wasn’t a priority. My family members generally look at me with confusion or concern then quickly ignore that I brought it up.

Nowadays I tell people if I feel like it. Usually there is a topic related to synesthesia that we’re talking about initially, so I don’t normally bring it up randomly. My friends are usually quite fascinated by my synesthesia. Once I bring the topic up the conversation can last for a few hours. I’ve also had a few friends go home and do research on it.

I remember giving my friend’s odd names while in junior high and high school. Their names would usually not “match” themselves so I would give them names or noises. Sometimes I would tell them what color they were being whenever it was intense. I also have video footage of me and my best friend at the time during a sleepover at my house. I was making weird noises to describe my emotions and she was looking at me weird, but I never noticed that I was doing anything strange. I’m not sure if that’s related to synesthesia or if I’m just strange in general as well.

Do any other of your family members have synaesthesia?

I’ve asked a few members periodically throughout the years, as I’ve stated before, since I first discovered I had synesthesia, but so far no one else has it. I have a handful of family members who are dyslexic on my mother’s side and dyslexia is usually associated with synesthesia, so I usually ask them every now and then. Sometimes I convince myself that my mom has it because she uses a lot of sounds and motions when she describes things, but that could be a cultural facet. I’ve even tried deciphering the drawings of the younger members to see if they had any type of synesthesia, but haven’t found any clues to an abnormal connection.

How does having synaesthesia affect your “normal” everyday life, if at all?

I’ve already mentioned how it’s affected my everyday life in previous questions. I think synesthesia affects everyone daily that truly has it. I get used to it sometimes, but other times it causes me frustration or gives me ecstasy. Certain actions cause certain smells, colors, or personalities to appear that I like or dislike. Some examples of bad feelings are when someone bites their nails from across the room I would hear a terrible blunt sound that makes me frustrated even though I can only see them biting their nails and not hear them do it. When someone smooths down a child’s hair too roughly I see a sandpaper like texture and an unpleasant dark lavender and yellow color. Lastly, when someone speaks really softly I see a huge span of yellow (which is another color I dislike). It happens when I can hear the spit in their mouth or the sounds that their lips make, so it would be a movement/sound to color synesthesia. Some happier actions are when the small yellow and white triangles and circles appear when my nails click the keyboard as I type. Or when I’m listening to a really good song with a beautiful synesthetic landscape.

While I was in high school, my friends would ask me how I could pick up languages easily and also how I thought when thinking of sentences. I’ll describe that to you now. I learn random vocabulary first rather than sentence structure when I’m introduced to a new language. So I know a plethora of words currently, but not how to structure them into a sentence. Also, most of the vocabulary that I choose to learn is because the word “sounds right” given the situation or object. For example, “chien” is better than “dog”, “tien” is better than “sweet”, “ojos” is better than “eyes”, “kaunis” is better than “beautiful”, “wae” is better than “why”, and “kokoro” is better than “heart.” So my thoughts are structured in a way where I use the words that I know in other languages to describe what I want to say with the feelings that I want to say it with. “Onegai arrête talking.” Would be “Please stop talking.” for example. The conjugations and sentence structure are not correct, but the colors, textures, shapes, and emotions fit.

Has having synaesthesia influenced you in any of the choices you’ve made career wise, or otherwise?

I was very creative while growing up so I picked up playing a lot of instruments. I’ve sewed, painted, created videos, built websites, and did photography as well. I still do those things today, but I’ve chosen to study Logistics and French. When I was a freshman in university I took a decision science/statistics course. There were about 100 people in the class and the majority were having a hard time comprehending the concepts. The course however was a breeze for me. I actually tutored people in my class while I was taking it because I would make straight 100’s/A’s on every homework and exam. I believe that my synesthesia has helped me understand number concepts easier than a person without synesthesia. Although I did state that I had trouble with numbers while growing up that was mostly a phase before I learned to control my synesthesia to my advantage.

I think that one of my biggest passions is learning and studying languages. I was excellent at writing while growing up (not so much now since I focus on numbers in my field of study) and had an extensive vocabulary. I could also pick up the meanings of new words I came across in a heartbeat. I believe that I’m hyperlexic although I’ve never been tested. Even though I’ve technically finished my French studies, I continue to read and write with new vocabulary and sentence structures every week. I’ve also learned how to read hangul in the span of a week and actually could speak and understand Korean very well (but my ability decreased as I socialized less and less with my Korean friends.) I’m currently studying Finnish and Japanese because their words emit beautiful images and emotions. A language that doesn’t give out such good feelings for me is Russian, and it has nothing to do with the culture.

Is your synaesthesia an advantage or a disadvantage to you?  If so, can you give some examples?

It’s an advantage when I use it to understand new concepts easier and quicker than I would have without my synesthesia. It’s a pain when annoying actions, sounds, movements, etc. emit other senses that intensify the thing I dislike. I believe that I’m a person with a bad temper that gets annoyed easily in the first place, so to have a disorder where my senses are crossed to intensify the impact of these actions is unfair. My mother used to scold me for always having my ear-buds on playing music from my iPod while growing up, but it was a mechanism to help ignore all the extra senses that bothered me. Sometimes if something intense happens suddenly it’s really hard to ignore it. So I used to focus on the images that music made instead and that made life easier. I still wear ear-buds or have music playing for most of the day to this day.

Can you tell me about any particularly strong synaesthetic moments you’ve experienced?

I’ve given examples in previously answered questions, but I can choose some random ones. When I play really intense music my senses fire up in a good way. It’s like getting a high from music. Other not-so-pleasant examples would be when someone next to me farts and all I can see is yellow or green until the smell goes away.

I think that I should clarify that the categories that I place for my synesthesia are not cut in stone. I just experience what I experience and try to section the forms off into groups to make it easier for others to understand. The most difficult to categorize, as I’ve stated before, are my color connections. I don’t know if colors that appear on people are due to their emotions, their body in general, or something else. Usually the color stays the same, but sometimes it changes and that’s due to my perception of their emotion rather than their body or vise versa. I cannot also pin point or concretely say that “blue means you’re feeling calm”, “yellow means that you are happy”, “purple means that you are frustrated”, etc. Yellow could possible be the color for happiness but I also usually see it associated with pain or sickness. So I cannot honestly layout what each connection means or why it happens. Usually people would say that this is a red flag as true synesthesia cannot change, but as I’ve said: My synesthesia is constant. My perceptions change because my focus changes which changes which connection shows stronger than the others that I have. I have multiple connections, so focusing on a person’s emotions rather than their body will each give me a different color as the connections are not the same or parallel.

If it were possible, would you want to “switch off” your synaesthesia temporarily just to see what life would be like without it?

I wouldn’t switch off my synesthesia for the reason mentioned above. I would switch it off to lower my frustration when an action that annoys me is intensified. That would help me greatly with my anger management. Otherwise I’m pretty content with having it.

Have your synaesthetic experiences been consistent over time?  Have any of the colours changed for example, or has it grown stronger or weaker as you’ve become older?

The colors, textures, personalities, etc. never change. The only thing that has faltered is the intensity. My synesthesia is more intense when I’m at a low part in my life and simmers down when I’m busy or content.

Mental maps or shapes to map out the day, week, year, etc. have actually grown weaker as I’ve gotten older. They were at their strongest point when I was in junior high. I used to draw my classmates weeks out for them when they found out about my synesthesia. Nowadays, I can faintly see the shapes and colors, but when I’m depressed I can see them more intensely.

There’s another form where I can see years and numbers in space. I think there’s a word for this form, but I cannot recall it presently. This form has also dimmed down quite a bit from my junior high years. I used to be able to see time in stair form, and I remember being confused by the setup of a normal horizontal number line in math class. The position wasn’t correct so taking math tests where I was supposed to show my work using a horizontal timeline often set me back. The set up of a number line for me is close to a diagonal line leaning to the upper right corner by the way.

You mention seeing Auras around people.  Do the Auras appear when you look at video clips or photographs of the same person?

I only see the “auras” in real life. My synesthesia appears on the object or person itself. So if I look at a picture on a computer screen then I see the computer screen’s images, colors, etc. instead of the images’. I think that the building example that I gave earlier was from me imagining the image in real life, so I saw what I would have seen if the actual building was in front of me. I haven’t tried doing that later in life just because I didn’t see a need to.

I hope you enjoyed getting to know me more!

Later Sweethearts,
Cilla

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